Daily Event for September 2, 2014

The freighter Pionier was built at Bremer Vulkan in Bremen, Germany in 1934, she was 352' long with a beam of 44' and registered at 3,285 gross tons (later re-registered at 3,624 gross). The 5 cylinder diesel could produce 975 hp and drive the ship at a top speed of 15 knots. She was a refrigerated fruit carrier owned by Afrikanische Frucht Compagnie AG (L. Laeisz) of Hamburg. Mostly used to transport bananas from Cameroon to Germany until 1940 when she was taken up by the Nazi government.

On September 2, 1940 Pionier was sailing in a small convoy from Frederikshavn, Denmark bound for Norway. She was transporting about 800 men, some were German soldiers returning from a rest period along with members of Police Battalion 105 from Bremen. This battalion would later be involved in the deportation of Jews from Russia and Poland. They committed numerous atrocities, murdering hundreds of Jews and Russians. Their crimes included arranging the transportation of 60,000 Jews to Auschwitz.

About 350 of those on board would not reach their destination thanks to Lt. George D. A. Gregory, D.S.O., R.N. and his HMS Sturgeon N-73. A little before 2000 hrs. he fired two torpedoes at the convoy hitting Pionier with one of them. The ship burned and sank about twenty miles north of Skagen, Denmark, the survivors being picked up by the freighter Utlandshörn and the minesweepers M-1901, M-1907, M-1905 and M-1904. Two hundred and forty-three bodies were recovered and buried in Frederikshavn, three more, including the master, Johann Staudacher, are buried in Oslo.

The Admiralty released the story on Sept. 5th, but they got the name of the ship wrong, it was reported as "Marion." The press also reported the casualties. Depending on which paper you were reading the figure was from 400 in one up to 3,900 in others. Then on Sept. 20th they released the name of the submarine, her skipper and other details. Their claim was that Sturgeon had sunk a 10,000 ton transport. This is what Gregory had reported to the Admiralty, his inflated claim was not uncommon, but to inflate the claim by two and a half times may have been a bit over the top. By November Life Magazine picked up the story and added that 4,000 troops had perished along with guns and ammunition. In official German documents it is stated that Pionier was carrying 753 men. It does not break down the figure, it states later that 487 survived, 243 were dead and that 93 were missing, that is a total of 823. This is perhaps the total number, including the ship's crew. It is clear that the number of casualties was nowhere near 4,000. Nevertheless this is the kind of news that the public loves to hear, and the press was only too happy to oblige.

The Germans denied the loss of the ship, but later claimed the ship was lost due to a boiler explosion or maybe a mine. At least two attempts were made by the Germans to investigate the cause of the sinking. Divers tried to reach the damaged section of the hull, but neither attempt was successful. They state in official documents that enemy action was "out of the question." Even in post war German publications the cause of the sinking is blamed on a mine.

At the time of the sinking Lt. Gregory had already been awarded the D.S.O. for action against the enemy, he was awarded a Bar for this patrol, in which he also reported to the Admiralty that he believed he had sunk a U-boat on Sept. 10th. This belief was not unfounded as he had fired a spread of torpedoes at U-43, but all missed the target.

HMS Sturgeon and Lt. Gregory both survived the war. Sturgeon was transferred to the Royal Netherlands Navy and ended her days at the scrappers yard in 1947. Lt. Gregory went on to command several other submarines and retired from the Royal Navy in 1966 as a Vice Admiral having been awarded the K.C.B., C.B., D.S.O. and Bar. Vice Admiral Gregory died in 1975.
© 2014 Michael W. Pocock